A New Game Plan For China's Nuclear Arsenal?
Image Credit: DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

A New Game Plan For China's Nuclear Arsenal?


In a system where order and sequences have a highly symbolic value, Xi Jinping’s first promotion of a military officer to generalship, added to a high-profile visit last week, can tells us a few things about his priorities for the military and what to look out for in the future. More than any other branch of the People’s Liberation Army, the Second Artillery Corps — which controls the country’s conventional and nuclear ballistic missile arsenal — appears to be where Xi’s interest lies.

Xi’s first act as the newly appointed chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) was to promote Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe, the 58-year-old commander-in-chief of the Second Artillery and a CMC member, to full general on November 23. Aside from increasing defense spending, the promotion of senior officers is regarded as the best way for Chinese leaders to consolidate their power over the armed forces.

As he quickly attempts to strengthen his control over the armed forces, Xi’s immediate consideration in promoting Wei may also have had something to do with the disgraced former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, whose ties to the Second Artillery Corps — more specifically, Second Artillery Political Commissar General Zhang Haiyang — had been seen by Beijing as a threat to their hold on power. Although Zhang managed to retain his seat on the Central Committee, he did not rise to the CMC — Wei did.

Beyond the political jockeying, Xi has indicated that the Second Artillery will play a more important role in the future. During a meeting with officers from the Second Artillery on December 5, the new CMC chief said the forces were “a strategic pillar of China’s great power status,” adding that the Corps was the “core force” of the nation’s “strategic deterrent” and an “important bedrock” to protect national security. In addition to emphasizing the need for the Second Artillery Corps to submit fully to party control, Xi called on it to develop a “powerful and technological missile force.”

Aside from the intercontinental nuclear missile arsenal, the Second Artillery also controls short- and medium-range missiles that can be used against Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, as well as U.S. bases in Okinawa. As part of China’s evolving anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, the Corps also operates the DF-21D, commonly referred to as the “carrier killer,” a missile that, once fully operational, could greatly complicate the deployment of U.S. or allied naval forces within the first island chain and beyond. Much of the current future investment in the Second Artillery derives from Beijing’s understanding that rapid modernization of its other military branches notwithstanding, it still cannot hope (nor does it desire) to fight and defeat U.S. forces in conventional battles.

But that’s for conventional missiles. What of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal? In an “explanatory reading” soon after Xi’s speech, Wang Haiyun, a retired PLA major general, told Hong Kong media that this was the first time that the “mission and status of China’s strategic nuclear forces were articulated in a public setting,” adding that the speech represented a possible departure from previous statements by senior Chinese officials about the role of China’s nuclear arsenal.

According to Wang’s interpretation of Xi’s remarks — which by no means should be accepted as official policy in Beijing — the latter may be in the process of shifting away from China’s current no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy—which among other things, states that China will only use nuclear weapons if it first comes under nuclear attack—to a more ambiguous nuclear policy where nuclear weapons could potentially be used in a broader set of contingencies.

Coincidentally, recent comments by some U.S. defense analysts could reinforce Beijing’s view that a strong nuclear arsenal should play a greater role in its defense posture. One could imagine this being part of China’s response to Washington’s so-called AirSea battle concept, which envisions the U.S. using massive amounts of conventional firepower against the Chinese homeland.

Partly in response to his concern that  an AirSea battle concept would inevitable result in a nuclear exchange between China and the United States, retired colonel T.X. Hammes has been making the case for what he calls an “offshore control” (OC) strategy that, instead of attempting to defeat China through conventional strikes on its territory or within the first island chain, seeks instead to neutralize much of China’s investment in A2/AD by operating outside the range of its capabilities. As Hammes explains it, under an offshore control strategy the U.S. “partners with Asia-Pacific nations to ensure the U.S. ability to interdict China’s energy and raw-material imports and industrial exports while protecting those nations.” In other words, rather than fight, the U.S. would try to choke China economically.

Hammes argues that an OC strategy, which would avoid penetration attacks on China proper, would reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation. This is a plausible scenario, but only if China’s nuclear doctrine of no-first-use remains unchanged. If, as Wang contends, Beijing is in the process of adopting a more expansive nuclear policy, an OC strategy used in a conflict of long duration could prompt Beijing to threaten nuclear use. If U.S. forces turn the tables on China and adopt an asymmetric approach that seeks to avoid China’s strengths, one possible response would be for Beijing to respond by reconsidering the contingencies in which it would rely on its nuclear forces.

Xi’s early moves already point to his interest in making the Second Artillery Corps a linchpin element of China’s future armed forces. As no system is static, U.S. military strategy towards China could very well precipitate further moves in that direction.

March 31, 2013 at 00:16

I think we should be friends with all countries including Viet Nam.

December 19, 2012 at 04:50

Over reliance on allies is an advantage not a weakness, if the US didn't have allies in the region, America would have zero business challenging China. 
My concern is US policy toward China turning into a vicious cycle. It's turning from America confronting China to defend her allies, into America seeking allies to confront China. I favour drawing a clear line between countries that the US has treaty commitments to and countries that can go screw themselves, like Vietnam for example.

Andrew Tubbiolo
December 19, 2012 at 01:36

  The simple fact of the matter is the American business sector will not allow the US Governmnet to contain China. So long as China plays it smart and allows the American business sector to combine it's interests with China's interests, the American financial sector will bring the rest of the United States in tow. Should the Chinese break ties to the American business sector and the US is left free to act in its own interests. The most probable evolution will be for the Chinse to build a real counterforce nuclear strike force. Fueled with plutonium bread in reactors of American design. Look for new modles of Chinese SSBN's and SSN's, as well as ICBM's. The United States would probably go in the direction of a conventional counterforce capability. That way the US would have the option of conducting strikes against the Chinese nuclear forces without crossing the nuclear threshold. Look for pinpoint accuracy in American ballistic missiles, a mass deployment of 1 and 1.5m class optical intel satellites, infra-red, and radar satellites, as well as deployment and further development of the Standard Missile class ABM and anti-satellite programs.
   None of this will happen. The Chinese have the American industrial, business, and financial sector by the nose. They can lead us anywhere they want to nudge us. If the Chinese are smart, they'll keep the American business secotor in their pocket, and with it, the American government.

talking points
December 12, 2012 at 20:27

there is no good alternative in wars. US should give up its hostile pivot. Hillary Clinton is an insecure women, what kind of policy can she make? there is no long term thinking, just knee jerk crazy women's revenge.
OC is another fantasy. Choking China's economy is to choke Japan's, Korea's and whole asia pacific's economy. do these strategiest even know how commerce are flowing in aisa? do they even know how China is investing in India?
it is not your grand father's WWII. China's incoming commerce flows from Australia too, why don't you ask Australia to stop exporting, that's much easier to sink an Australian cargo ship. China's outgoing commerce goes to US and Europe, I never heard a military strategy to stop cargo ships coming to its own country loaded with toys. what a laughing stock.
this Leonard guy, what can i say, I don't want to be rude, nor to be dishonest. anyway, who cares.

Drive by
December 11, 2012 at 17:02

Threatening with nuclear annilation is actually one of the most cost-effective way for China to deal with AirSea Battle. Since China already dug 5,000 kms of tunnels for its Second Artillary Corps, maybe it should actually store some more warheads in there. China should bring up its nuclear arsenal on par with America's in quantity as soon as possible. Then we will definately see peace in our time in the West Pacific.
By the way, it seems that there are always some guys in the West who live in their own world, and fantasizing the U.S. will have a miltary confrontation with China. Here is the reality: http://www.dni.gov/index.php/about/organization/national-intelligence-council-global-trends Even America's own intelligence report predicts China will be the largest economy in the world before 2030.  I don't think the U.S. can afford to win the Pacific Pivot.

Leonard R
December 11, 2012 at 11:53

I like Colonel Hamme's OC idea.  But I don't think it will reduce the risk of escalating a conflict into a nuclear exchange. But even so, just considered by itself, OC is a big piece of the strategic puzzle
Its virtues are (i) Off-shore control makes sense. It's easier to understand than A2/AD. (ii) It is probably cheaper and more effective as well.  And (iii) it is something the US already has the pieces in place to accomplish right now. 
Its drawback seems to be an over-reliance on allies. There are very few allies on whom the US can depend. But OC is actually something the US might be ale to accomplish without allies.  And if one or two showed up, such as India or Japan, voila! It would be lethal.. 

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